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February 2011

A Few Odds and Ends

Sunday Night Journal — February 27, 2011

I'm not able to write anything very substantial tonight, so instead I'm going to throw together a few miscellaneous things I've noticed over the past week or so.


Simcha Fisher explains why she loves her ugly little liturgy. I'm much of the same mind, after many years of complaining and getting depressed about the dreariness of the typical Catholic liturgy.

This is your big opportunity. You can either clench your teeth, wrap your scapulars around your ears to block out the tambourines, and hightail it out of there as soon as you can . . .

Or you can think to yourself, “Christ is here. And if he can stand it, then so can I.”


I think I'm finished with CNN. I just performed a ceremonial deletion of the bookmark from my browser. I have a bad habit of checking in on several news sites fairly often during the day, which I really shouldn't be doing, as it's a big distraction from work. I used to check Fox and CNN about equally. I got disgusted with Fox's sensationalism, and the fact that they so often find some reason to include a picture of a girl in a bikini on their front page. So I quit going there regularly, although I still sometimes look there for an alternative view. But today CNN is running a very prominent story about anti-Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan. Of course it's the usual fawning stuff about ideas that have been old for a century now ("Jesus didn't really rise from the dead! I know because I'm so smart! And also brave for telling advanced people like me exactly what they want to hear."). But I'm sick of it.  I can't remember ever having seen a similar feature on an orthodox Christian theologian. The reduction by eight or ten of the number of page views they get in a day won't hurt CNN, but it will please me. To object to stuff like this only gets the usual "You can't handle the truth!" response. Might as well just ignore it.

Why don't they get that this drives people away? Wouldn't it be more consistent with journalistic ideals to try to be...what's the term?...fair and balanced? Part of the explanation for the success of Fox News can be found in this sort of thing.


Here is a rather striking story about what really happens when a "Do Not Resuscitate" order is implemented and the patient doesn't die as anticipated. 


Cats Adore, Manipulate Women. The scientific findings recounted in the story are not nearly as remarkable as the title suggest--there is nothing in it about "adoring"--but they're still interesting. However, I have not found this to be true: "If owners comply with their feline's wishes to interact, then the cat will often comply with the owner's wishes at other times."

Speaking of cats, this one belongs to my mother, and sleeps on the back of the couch like this all the time:



Tomorrow the Carmelites I wrote about last week  formally enter the enclosure from which they will not emerge unless they become too sick to be taken care of by the other sisters, or, as was the case with the last four who preceded them, they're all too old to take care of each other. Here is one of their cells, the only private space each of them will have:


My first thought on seeing it was "I want to live here." As we were about to leave and were looking for the way out, the extern sister who was showing us around joked that the door was locked now and we would have to stay. "Really?! That would be great!" was my response. But I know I probably wouldn't last more than a week.



The Roots: Dear God 2.0

Weekend Music

I've never heard much rap/hip-hop that I like. But considering all the wonderful music made by black Americans for the past hundred years or so, I thought there must be some, and so for years now I've had an eye, or rather an ear, out for it. I read somewhere that A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory was one of the best hip-hop albums ever made, so I gave that a try, and although it was interesting it wasn't something I wanted to hear very much. And I enjoyed The Fugees' The Score. I heard something by The Roots a while back that I liked, and so when I saw their How I Got Over on sale at Amazon a month or so ago I bought it. And I've finally found it: a hip-hop album that I really like. The video is worth watching, too:


I was slightly disappointed to learn that The Roots didn't write the actual song part of this. It's sampled from a group called Monsters of Folk. Here's their original.

When I saw "Dear God 2.0" I assumed at first that it was a reference to XTC's unhappy atheist "Dear God" from the '80s. Even if that's not what The Roots meant, it works; that is, it seems an appropriate companion or successor piece. You can hear XTC's here.

How I Got Over is not completely free of the egregious crudeness, violence, misogyny, and tough-guy boasting that seem to characterize an awful lot of rap, but there's really not very much of it (although the language is pretty rough overall).  Almost every track has substance, and the whole album has a rich, somewhat dark and melancholy vibe. It's not something I'll put aside after a few listens.


Morbid thought after reading some comments on a political blog: when will civil war break out in the United States? I don't think it will be soon but it sure looks like it could happen if present trends continue.

Mysterious Renewal

A few weeks ago I mentioned the Carmelite monastery in Mobile (here). The last four nuns were moving out, having grown old and infirm and in need of a good deal of assistance. I've been meaning to follow up on that story. 

As with many religious orders, new vocations have not been arriving for many years, and so it seemed that when these last nuns died or grew to ill to remain, the Carmel would be finished. But through a complex series of providential events, there is a new group of nuns arriving to take their places. They are from Vietnam: in a beautiful turn of providence, a country within which the U.S. fought a terrible war against totalitarian atheism is now sending the bright green shoots of spiritual renewal to its former enemy, no doubt entirely unaware of the real significance of what it is doing. I don't know the whole story; perhaps part of it is that the Communist government is not terribly unhappy to get rid of a few religious people from time to time. Apparently it took a while, but the young nuns were eventually granted permission to leave.

I visited the monastery last weekend. I'd like to say more but once again an evening has slipped away from me, so for now I'll just post this picture of three pictures, one of the elderly departing nuns (with the Archbishop of Mobile) and two of the new group, taken before they left Vietnam. (They arrived here last Sunday). I'm not sure whether it will come through here, but I found it hard to look at the original pictures without smiling. (This is a photo of a bulletin board in the monastery on which the pictures were posted.)


Feeling Sorry For Gertrude Stein

It's  not something one has occasion to do very often, but I did feel a twinge of pity for her when I read this rejection letter.  Read this first if you've never read any of her writing.  

This reminds me of Flannery O'Connor in one of her letters, dismissing the work of some avant-garde writer: "If it looks funny on the page I don't read it."

Be wary of that free WiFi

I don't know how many people who read this blog are in the habit of bringing their laptop or phone to places like Starbucks and using the free wireless Internet. But if you are one of them, you should read this. If you don't want to bother, here's the crucial part:

Firesheep is an incredibly easy to use add-on for the Firefox web browser that, when invoked while connected to any open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot, lists every active web session being conducted by anyone sharing the hotspot, and allows a snooping user to hijack any other user’s online web session logon with a simple double-click of the mouse. The snooper, then logged on and impersonating the victim, can do anything the original logged on user/victim might do.

"open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot" describes the services offered in many coffee shops and restaurants. If you're able to simply walk into the place and connect without any sort of password, this is probably what they have. 

Here's a blog post by the author of the program explaining that he wrote it in hope of forcing web developers and providers to take the fairly elementary precautions required to prevent Firesheep from working. It includes a few screen shots that will make clear what he's talking about, in case you aren't sure.

There is an important exception to what it can do: if you're accessing a web site that encrypts all traffic, which you can ordinarily identify by the fact that the URL displayed in the browser begins with "https" rather than "http," intercepting the data doesn't accomplish anything for the would-be hijacker, because the data is heavily encrypted. So Firesheep is probably not a danger to your bank account, because financial data is almost universally handled with HTTPS now. But Facebook, for instance, does not. Your email provider may not. Etc. If you're just surfing around, reading the news and whatnot, not doing anything personal or embarrassing, on any site that doesn't require that you log in, this doesn't matter--there is no "session" to hijack.

(Hat tip to my wife, who is becoming quite the technologist.) 

Can the Modern World Outlive the Anglosphere?

Sunday Night Journal — February 20, 2011

The January issue of The New Criterion includes a symposium called “The Anglosphere and the future of liberty.” It’s been on my mind a good deal since the issue arrived some weeks ago.

“The Anglosphere,” in case you haven’t encountered the term, refers to the English-speaking world, to all the nations which have their political roots and some significant cultural roots in England, even if the connection began with conquest. It includes, obviously, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, and a good many other former colonies of the British Empire. The broad thesis of the symposium can be summed up in this sentence from Mark Steyn’s contribution, “Dependence Day”:

We are coming to the end of a two-century Anglosphere dominance, and of a world whose order and prosperity many people think of as part of a broad, general trend but which in fact derive from a particular cultural inheritance and may well not survive it.

What we call the modern world, say the contributors, has been in very large part shaped by the combination of constitutional government, technological innovation, and capitalism which is particularly characteristic of the English-speaking nations. That’s a very broad statement, and one can immediately begin a list of contributions toward that sort of development which came from other peoples, and of nations which have adopted the general pattern at least as successfully. But it does strike me as a defensible generalization. (If you broaden the category from the Anglosphere to include the Nordic countries, it’s even more defensible, and if you make it Europe and nations rooted in Europe, it doesn’t even need much qualification.) As Steyn says, “We forget how rare on this earth is peaceful constitutional evolution, and rarer still outside the Anglosphere.”

Steyn is a polemicist, and I don’t agree with everything he says in his piece. He includes a few overly-simplisitic or sensational jibes, and in general is certainly not concerned with doing justice to the opposing case. But he raises a serious and important question. Granting that his characterization of the Anglosphere’s role in making the modern world is at least a defensible generalization, what will happen if those nations become incapable and/or unwilling to do and to be what they have been? We have seen in the last two centuries a continuing trend toward the recognition of individual rights, the rule of law, and representative government. Most of us consider that to be progress, whether or not we applaud every aspect of modernity, although like any form of progress it has its defects and proceeds in a zig-zag way, not in a straight line, with rights gained here and lost there. And sometimes, as is particularly the case in the U.S. and Great Britain now, it becomes cancerous, so that the right to vote becomes the same thing as the right to paint a butterfly on your cheek which becomes the same thing as making pornography. Steyn notes a case which represents the reductio ad absurdum of this, in which the government of the U.K. paid for a man with learning disabilities to fly to Amsterdam and have sex with a prostitute—because, of course, he had a right to sex. (Why he had not been able to procure it on his own was not made clear.)

But what struck me most from Steyn’s piece, and has been most on my mind, is this: “ cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequences.”

It is typically those who argue for the institution of a sort of extreme version of human rights, which involves not so much liberty of action as the equation of liberty with the satisfaction of all wants and the duty of the state to provide it, who are least respectful of the actual history and traditions of human rights as understood in the Anglosphere. They tend to see history as a parade of injustices: the most notable features of the history of the United States, for instance, are slavery and the crushing of the Indians. They are far more ashamed than proud of the civilization that produced them, and they see themselves as standing apart from it. They tend to see the Anglosphere’s tradition of liberty and law as a sort of scam designed to preserve the power and possessions of the ruling class. Their rhetoric generally seems more that of rebels seeking to overthrow an oppressor than of citizens seeking the improvement of an order of which they are members and inheritors.

The inheritors, and also the beneficiaries: it is no secret that over the past several decades many of these quasi-revolutionaries have found themselves very comfortably situated in the academy, in the entertainment industry, in journalism, and in government. Especially in the first two of these, they exercise influence far greater than would be suggested by their numbers. And they’ve had a fair amount of success: it’s now quite common to hear people of no particular sense or education toss off secular-leftist platitudes as readily as others might say “God bless America!”

Well, all this is pretty well-known, and I’m pretty sure I’m repeating things I’ve said before. But I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Stein’s “profound consequences.” There’s a disconnect between the vision of the radical critics, which holds their civilization to be fundamentally corrupt—racist, imperialist, sexist, etc.—and their complacency about their own position in it. They act as if their own prosperity, security, and liberty have no connection to the history of the country that produced them—as if it had just somehow appeared, a pure product of nature like rain and sunlight, to which they have a natural right. There is sometimes, at least in the younger sort of radical, a sense of guilt about this, but it appears to diminish with age, perhaps still making itself felt but being directed outward, resulting in an intensification of the critique.

Moreover, there is an assumption that they can continue to propagate the idea that contemporary Western prosperity, security, and liberty are the fruit of a poisonous root which must be yanked out of the ground and destroyed, and yet continue to enjoy those same fruits. Well, it doesn’t work that way with plants, and I don’t think it works that way with societies, either.

Maybe this is partly just a swing of the pendulum, a needed correction to the natural tendency of any nation or culture to ignore the dark side of its own history. I’d like to think so. And I should note that I’m speaking in worldly terms here. From the most important point of view, that of the spiritual fate of mankind, it is certainly arguable that the worldly goods which the Anglosphere has excelled in procuring are serving now to pull people in the direction of hell. If so, then it will be a good thing if we lose them. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about what that will mean.

What if the broad order of which Steyn speaks really is by and large the work of the Anglosphere, and its internal critics succeed in demoralizing it to the point where its best institutions are no longer respected and cultivated? Take a good look at most of the rest of the world, and ask yourself if you really want to make Euro-American societies more like it. This doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world—quite the opposite is true—but I think most of us, even the more alienated, really would prefer to keep our basic institutions. Certainly there is no substantial migration out of Europe, America, Australia, And those institutions are in turn dependent on a huge number of cultural habits and presumptions, ways of thinking that have roots in Europe generally and in the Anglosphere specifically. Our idea of citizenship, for instance, is by no means a feature of all societies. It is under attack in many ways, of which the radical critique is only one—self-indulgence, aka consumerism, is another—but without it our representative institutions will inevitably fail.

Sometime in the late ‘70s or so, when the economy was looking bad and the Reagan-era reaction against government social programs was beginning, someone (perhaps Reagan himself), speaking of the capitalist economy as the goose that laid golden eggs, observed that it was time to stop arguing about how to divide up the eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose. Something similar might be said now about our political health and stability, upon which so much else depends: it’s time to stop arguing about who is going to get the best rooms in the house, and start worrying about the cracks in the foundation and the leaks in the roof.

In my view what the Anglosphere requires for its renewal can only be provided by the Catholic Church. But that’s another topic.

The Intellectuals

Who shall deliver my soul from the words of men?...

Harken ye loud and presumptuous ones, wind-strewn children of your own caprice:

We are parched beside your well-springs, we are starved by the meat you offer us, we have grown blind by the light of your lamps.

You are like a road that leads nowhither, like so many small steps taken around yourselves.

You are like a driving flood, the sound of your gushing is forever in your mouth.

You are the cradle of your own truth, tomorrow you shall be its grave.

—Gertrude von Le Fort

I had never heard of this German poet until I read an excerpt from a poem called "Return to the Church" in Magnficat. Presumably this is a translation. This is an excerpt from the excerpt, and the title of the post is mine. I especially like the last line. The whole thing seems to me an accurate description of much (or most) contemporary intellectual life.

Misguided Promotions

I received this unpleasant-looking object in the mail at work a few days ago.  It's supposed to make me want to buy stuff from HP (Hewlett-Packard). In fact I do buy stuff from them, and have always respected their engineering, but this certainly did nothing to encourage me. It's about the size of a large egg, and it arrived in a little box containing either nothing else or a very small piece of paper with a bit of advertising on it (I can't remember for sure).  The color in this picture is not accurate--the thing is actually a very plain grey, and made of a sort of foamy plastic. The orange lettering is the address of a web site.


This wouldn't be at all remarkable, except that it could only have happened with the work and cooperation of a number of people, most of whom must have thought it was a good idea. I know! We'll send them this plastic brain, and it'll be like "Now that you have a brain, buy HP!" It'll be huge!" And it probably represents an investment of many thousands of dollars.  Someone had to design it. Someone had to find a manufacturer (probably in China--so picture the cargo hold of a plane stuffed with boxes of these)...etc.

Well, my cat really loves it. I brought it home from work to show it to my wife, and left it on my desk. The cat immediately started playing with it and when I got home the next evening it was two rooms away. Come to think of it, maybe the cat is trying to tell me to get rid of it...